Much Ado About Branagh
BPI Newswire, May 1993
by Matthew Gilbert
When Kenneth Branagh, the Young
Lion of British Acting, walks into a room, the molecules are
hardly disturbed. He's no power storm, this compact 32-year-old,
not the press' raging wunderkind wanting to one-up Sir Laurence
Olivier and Orson Welles before noon. With carroty brows, true-blue
eyes and paper-thin lips, Branagh is the young whippersnapper
as Ordinary Bloke, whose affection for D. H. Lawrence recalls
his own working-class Belfast youth. You won't hear much roaring
from this Young Lion.
Surprised? Branagh, after all,
is the brazen actor-director who, at 28, remade Shakespeare's
``Henry V,'' challenging Olivier's classic 1944 version. He is
the fair-haired boy whose second directorial effort, the playful
``Dead Again,'' established him as Very Hot Property in Hollywood.
With his wife, Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, he is one-half of
the heaviest acting couple since Burton and Taylor. His next
project, produced by Francis Coppola, is a high-profile remake
of ``Frankenstein'' starring Robert De Niro as the monster. And
the Renaissance Theatre Company that he founded six years ago,
featuring Class-A British actors like Derek Jacobi and Dame Judi
Dench, has as its patron none other than the prince of Wales.
He is, of course, destined for a knighthood.
Today, in fact, the Young Lion
sounds more like an anxious colt. His star-studded film of Shakespeare's
``Much Ado About Nothing'' is about to have its New York premiere,
and he's at ``that nervous stage'' of wondering how the world
will receive it. The comedy stars Branagh, Thompson, Denzel Washington,
Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton. ``I can't watch it with people
anymore,'' Branagh says, Woody Allen gone U.K., his accent briskly
casual. ``I've always assumed disaster is right around the corner
-- the bad review, the terrible backlash, some awful accident.
So when you get away with things it's just a relief. I feel less
joy, more relief.'' Thompson is in Ireland filming ``The Gerry
Conlon Story'' with Daniel Day-Lewis, and so Branagh will face
tonight's klieg lights on his own.
Branagh's anxiety for ``Much
Ado'' may be well-founded: Purist critics, especially in England,
have slung arrows of outrage at his popularization of the Bard.
With his subversive, earthy ``Henry V,'' which won him two Oscar
nominations in 1989, and numerous stagings with Renaissance,
Branagh has tried to take Shakespeare back from the scholars
and make him user-friendly. Within the first 10 minutes of his
``Much Ado,'' for instance, the actors are frolicking naked in
a lush Tuscan villa. ``That's what he was, he wrote for a mass
audience,'' Branagh says. ``His plays were watched by the groundlings,
by the aristos, by royalty. ... He was pretty shameless in his
attempt to please everybody. He was a populist.'' The academics
who ``deify'' Shakespeare ``contribute to the wall of intimidation
about this great figure.''
In keeping with his populist
impulses, Branagh cast ``Much Ado'' with a naturalistic and variegated
cast. He says he didn't want the ``wall-to-wall mellifluous British
thing,'' but rather ``the clash of different acting styles.''
He deliberately went after Americans like Denzel Washington and
Michael Keaton: ``I was intrigued by the Italianate, passionate
element in the play, so I wanted visceral acting.'' He admits
he would have gotten a smaller budget with an all-British cast,
but he insists this didn't guide his casting. ``There was no
pressure to put a young hunk in to get us that audience. ...
I'm sure the whole `Bill and Ted' audience won't come to see
Keanu Reeves in this.''
Branagh says he can picture himself
making only Shakespeare films, except that he needs to ``keep
one foot in the commercial world'' with films like ``Dead Again.''
``You might want to make a film of `Pericles' where you'd want
an old galleon on an ocean and it would be sort of epic. And
you'd wish you had enough commercial clout to say, `Listen, it's
going to be a $20 million movie.''' He also likes to challenge
himself with a variety of genres. In making ``Much Ado,'' he
says, he consciously tried to diverge from ``Henry V'': ``I did
not want to feel I was at the beginning of something like the
BBC Shakespeare series, which did all the plays and got duller
and duller as it went on. That's my response to those who say
too many people are enjoying my Shakespeare. Do you want too
few people to enjoy it? Watch the BBC Shakespeare -- it's a cure
for insomnia. It's a dead, dead thing.'' He says he can imagine
filming ``Hamlet'' or ``Twelfth Night,'' or even making an animated
The centerpiece of ``Much Ado''
is the famous banter between Benedick and Beatrice, played in
the film by Branagh and Thompson. Naturally, audiences will wonder
whether the characters' witty love-hatred mirrors the actors'
own rapport. ``To some extent,'' Branagh says, ``it was not difficult
for us to use a certain kind of ongoing irony that we use with
each other. Certainly I recognize a lot of myself in Benedick.
... He's so imperfect, so silly when he's in love, and yet you
feel he's sort of a steady guy. And he has his own honor code.
It felt, if not easy, then natural to be playing it with Emma.''
Branagh met Thompson, who is
34, while filming ``The Fortunes of War'' for the BBC in 1986.
Since then, the couple has appeared together repeatedly, in ``Henry
V,'' ``Dead Again,'' the BBC's ``Look Back in Anger'' and ``Peter's
Friends,'' Branagh's 1992 take on ``The Big Chill.'' Branagh
says he and Thompson nevertheless consider themselves separate
professional units: ``It was great that Emma won an Oscar for
a picture with which I was utterly unconnected. And I think that's
done much to say, `Listen, we are independent creatures.' We
don't do interviews together. We don't cultivate being joined
at the hip. There's a line that we go to in terms of talking
about ourselves in relation to the work, and beyond that we don't
pursue any extra celebrity. We aren't chasing around at premieres
or doing anything more to be in the public eye.''
Most likely, Branagh says, Thompson
will not appear in ``Frankenstein.'' But they will undoubtedly
continue to work together, ``unless we just literally weren't
getting on.'' The last thing he'd do is avoid acting with her
for appearance's sake. ``I would hate to deny working with that
talent. I've never worried too much about what other people think.
That way madness lies.'' When they perform together, their marriage
remains at home. ``We don't use acting to work out our problems,''
he says. The other people on the set serve as ``a kind of filtration
system for anything I would say to Emma. ... If Emma's being
driven potty by me, then she can go and bitch about it to someone
Branagh appears to be innately
practical, and that may be the source of his professional strength.
At 28, for instance, he wrote an autobiography to finance the
fledgling Renaissance company. Practicality shields him from
the Hollywood seductions that spoil the most promising of talents.
``I choose to do things entirely based on the material,'' he
says. ``I have the luxury of doing that because I don't (ital)have(endital)
to direct films. It's an acute privilege for me, but I really
see myself as an actor. If I was told I'd never be able to direct
another movie, it wouldn't be the end of my life. At least if
I can think that, it gives me a certain strength of position.''
When ``Frankenstein'' came his way, he says, he was ready to
pass if he couldn't film it in London.
``Frankenstein,'' of course,
will take Branagh centuries away from Shakespeare. He says his
version of Mary Shelley's classic, in which he'll play the doctor,
won't be a horror film: ``The book `Frankenstein' is so different
from what's been done on screen. It's really a Gothic fairy tale
with lots of moral meat.''
Until he was 9, Branagh lived
in Belfast, where his father was a contractor. To escape the
violence of Northern Ireland, his family moved to an English
suburb, nipping Branagh's cocky urbanity in the bud. At 15, he
saw his first play, ``Hamlet,'' in which he would later star
numerous times. After a visit to Oxford, Branagh writes in his
autobiography, he decided to go straight into acting: ``I smiled
and shifted nervously in my seat, moving an enormous working-class
chip from one shoulder to the other, and thought that this definitely
wasn't the place for me.''
From then on, there was no floundering
in Branagh's career. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Art, and by 23 had become a principal at the Royal
Shakespeare Company after a few West End jobs. Unhappy with the
bureaucracy and caution of the RSC, he quit to create the Renaissance
company with actor David Parfitt. Branagh has often said that
his goal with Renaissance is to make accessible plays that his
parents can see. In 1987, he starred in his first feature film,
``High Season,'' and has since acted in ``A Month in the Country''
and ``Swing Kids,'' along with his own films.
Throughout this ascent, British
critics have consistently been unpleasant to him, Branagh says:
``But that's part of the British experience. If I was as casual
with my lines in a play as some of the British press are about
their facts, I would be laughed off the stage. I just don't think
about it anymore. I've gone though the stage of getting upset
or wounded.'' People are less impressed by their own countrymen,
he says, and the Brits might like him if he moved to L.A.: ``In
the wake of Emma's Oscar, suddenly they seem to like us again.''
In America, Branagh is treated
with more respect. But he's equally resistant to the brighter
side of fame. ``This scenario, where you're going from a hotel
room to a limo to a premiere -- it all gets a bit off the ground.
The next day, there's another 58,000 films opening. New York
is not waking up wondering where I am and what I'm doing.'' Once
he's finished promoting ``Much Ado'' and Thompson finishes ``Gerry
Conlon,'' they'll leave behind business and celebrity to go away
for a few weeks. In 1991, the couple took a four-month walking
holiday, staying at bed-and-breakfasts throughout Scotland and
``I love a good drink,'' Branagh
says, images of the good life passing behind his eyes. ``When
we go to Scotland, there are various lovely beers to be had there.
I really love a lovely pint of beer. I like wine. My idea of
relaxing is a few mates and a nice meal. Simple. That really
is my idea of heaven.''
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